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|By Rawle Lucas- August 1, 2022 marked 184 years since the ancestors of people of African descent in Guyana were freed from the bondage of slavery. Their emancipation came five years after the Emancipation Proclamation was adopted by the British Parliament and four years after the intended date for implementation of the decision. For sure, it was a moment to celebrate for words cannot describe the horrific life under slavery and bring back the dignity of a people lost through calculated acts of brutality, inhumanity and exploitation.
Guyanese must demand the opportunity to celebrate it in a manner befitting our survival and value to the Guyanese society. It was our struggle for freedom, supported by Europeans with a heart, that opened the door for indentured workers of Portuguese, East Indian and Chinese ancestry to come and join the Indigenous and African populations that were already here.
Emancipation Day should be celebrated by all Guyanese because that day changed the country forever. The work being done by various African Guyanese groups in Guyana, but particularly the African Cultural and Development Association (ACDA), to keep Emancipation at the forefront of our holidays needs to be commended and fully supported by all Guyanese.
As welcomed as it was, Emancipation did not bring social and economic equality or justice to the ancestors. Consequently, the occasion of 1 August 1838 marked another turning point in the lives of Guyanese of African descent. Institutions, whether households, communities, corporations or governments, survive for long periods through the accumulation of wealth. This accumulation comes through savings.
For households, it presumes that they are working and can save some of their wages and salaries while living a comfortable life. For businesses, it comes through saving some of their profits if they are making enough to do so. With the sugar industry as the mainstay of the economy during slavery, the ancestors’ work of nearly 200 years enriched their slave masters and impoverished them.
Their starting point in life after Emancipation was therefore at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. When the opportunity presented itself, evidence of thrift and ingenuity is seen in the ability of some formerly enslaved Africans to buy land and form villages. Those who were not part of the savings scheme were either left homeless or dependent on former slave masters for survival. Other forms of thrift included the formation of burial societies and penny banks as proof that efforts at upliftment took place.
Today, those who look at the plight of people of African descent in Guyana believe that African Guyanese had 184 years to make their lives better but wasted them. Such thinking can only come from those who have not taken the time to study the history of Guyana or who remain insensitive to the economic injustice that continued after emancipation. Such critics refuse to accept that while our ancestors were no longer held with chains and whips, their former oppressors used relational and structural power to maintain that oppression.
As a result, the freed slaves could not develop their own policies and construct a society that enabled them to grow and become wealthy. Critics ignore the fact that policymaking remained in the hands of former slave owners, and their policies did not bring the formerly enslaved Africans into a position of equity or advantage in the new social system that was forming. To the contrary, they adopted policies to hurt and hinder progress of the ancestors.
The purchase of land was curtailed either by restricting the amount that could be bought or raising the price to make purchase unaffordable. When those tactics failed, those in control turned to more wicked policies like flooding the lands. Investments were ruined and without financial backing restarting was difficult. Another example is the obstacle to our ability to compete in the retail or distributive trade. African women began selling goods, but when the Portuguese arrived, the credit portfolio of moneylenders reduced its dependence on the patronage of African women and increased dependence on the new arrivals. Placed at a disadvantage, African women were forced to look for less lucrative economic opportunities.
It was not until 1964, 136 years after Emancipation, that people of African descent in Guyana had an opportunity to shape their own future. Even then, the global bipolar power construct did not leave room for Guyana to develop policies that were compatible with the economic circumstances of its time. High oil prices, acts of terrorism, and an international monetary system destroyed by US unilateralism undermined the Guyana economy. Were we not a net oil exporter today, the Guyana economy could not survive the current economic challenges.
African Guyanese speak proudly, and quite rightly so, of the abandoned plantations that their ancestors started buying one year after Emancipation. Such rapid progress at changing the lives of enslaved persons through self-reliance is phenomenal but is not even valued as a significant national accomplishment by all. Village Day to celebrate those purchases without financial help is being ignored. The model of their cooperation, the motivation for the name of our country, is highly disrespected. The value of cooperation has been set aside for another form of exploitation despite the contribution of cooperatives to global growth and development.
In current times, it is not only people of African descent who are suffering in Guyana and there is no effort to explore the virtues of institutions like cooperatives to reduce that suffering. Guyanese should know that two of the largest businesses in Europe are the product of cooperatives. One is Credite Agricole Groupe and the other is Groupe BPCE, both of which are out of France. These two cooperative institutions finance about 40 percent of the French economy. They are also major players in Europe and globally. Credite Agricole Groupe for example earns in excess of US$100B in annual revenues, employs over 140,000 people and operates in 53 countries.
In sugar, people of African descent had no ownership rights and were unable to accumulate any wealth for themselves. Oil and gas have arrived and have already become the mainstay of the Guyana economy. With two wells in operation after two and a half years, the contribution to GDP could be as high as 60 percent in 2022. With the Guyana economy already pivoted towards oil and gas, people of African descent are without ownership rights in that industry just as they were in sugar.
How can the principal activity of an economy exclude a substantial segment of its population from ownership rights and expect them to be successful? Prices in the country are being driven by the large amount of money coming from the oil and gas industry. Land, house and food prices are skyrocketing. Yet, intelligent people of African descent believe that their economic status could be improved by operating in the marginal parts of the economy. Instead of accepting defeat and a position of inferiority, they should pledge themselves to change the economic and financial conditions that are holding them and their compatriots back.